Jesus of Montreal
(Jésus de Montréal)
Before he became an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Denys Arcand was an historian. And some of his first historical projects—such as a government-sponsored documentary about Samuel de Champlain, one of the founding fathers of Canada—got him into trouble with the powers that be, who felt he didn't toe the official line as closely as he should have.
So Arcand knew whereof he spoke when he wrote and directed Jesus of Montreal. The film concerns an actor who, upon being hired to produce a passion play for one of Montreal's churches, decides to base the play not on the gospels per se but on his own reconstruction of the "historical Jesus"—and because his play challenges Christian dogma at every turn, he quickly runs afoul of the priests who hired him.
Along the way, the actor in question faces temptation from fawning critics and wealthy agents alike, and he takes a bold stand against the commercialization of art and the dehumanization of his fellow actors. And so the actor's life takes on an allegorical dimension as he becomes a sort of Christ-figure: he inspires his fellow thespians, he confounds the secular authorities, and, ultimately, he dies for his artistic integrity.
It would be a mistake to suppose, as some have done, that Arcand is asking, "What would it be like if Jesus had come today?" Instead, Arcand is doing what he often does: holding history up as a mirror to our own time, and noting how human behavior has a tendency to repeat itself. (See his documentary Comfort and Indifference, in which an actor playing Machiavelli comments on the forces at work in Canadian politics; or see his dramatic films The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, which draw an explicit parallel between the decadence of ancient Rome and the decadence of today.)
Arcand is also profoundly concerned with the question of meaning and how it can be found in a post-modern world teeming with so many contradictory stories and messages. Note how the very same stage that hosted an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov in the film's opening scene is used a short while later for a beer-commercial audition: every stage and every screen is a blank space waiting to be filled, and it doesn't matter what fills it. Similarly, at one point, the passion-play actors tease the priest who first commissioned their play—and now wants to revise it—by acting out the different genres through which they could filter the story of Christ: kabuki, method acting, comédie française. What difference can the content of the story make when its form is dictated by conventions such as these?
And yet, in a strange way, there is hope here. One of the most important scenes in the film doesn't concern Jesus at all: instead, it features an actor in a recording booth, as he narrates a documentary about the vastness of space and the insignificance of human life. That, right there, is the Modern story. But once he has finished his narration, the actor hands the script to the man who wrote it and says, "It leaves a lot unanswered." Yes, the man replies, "and though it's valid today, in years it may change."
So the narrative that says life is essentially meaningless is, itself, just another meaningless story, fighting for space with all the other stories out there. That, right there, is the Post-Modern story. And this, the characters seem to recognize, simply will not do. There must be stories that mean something, and these people are determined to tell them. The story of Jesus, however incomplete their understanding of it might be, is not a bad place to start.
—Peter T. Chattaway